Michelle Villanueva reviews THE SHADOW OF SIRIUS

May 26, 2015 0 Comments Book Review 1036 Views
Book Cover

Cover from publisher’s website.

W.S. Merwin. The Shadow of Sirius. Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press, 2008. 114p.
Review by Michelle Villanueva, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Like the dog days of summer, W.S. Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius lulls the reader with its slow and even sultry ways to a state of thick, green reverie.  Once there, though, the reader finds the world in Merwin’s book marked with a tinge of wistfulness, because its beauty is often fleeting and mainly lives through recollections of the past.  “So this is the way the night tastes” begins the poem “Blueberries After Dark,” an invitation, to be sure, and a sensual one, at that (Merwin 6).   However, the poem does not stay for long in that sweet, sensual place but instead wends its way toward honoring a mother’s wisdom gained through a history of death.  So too, “The Pinnacle” describes the remembrance of a short, happy walk that occurred when the speaker was just a child (Merwin 16-17).  Beauty in this world is real, or at least it was real at one time, but it is quiet, or distant, or fading.

At the same time, beauty exists within the lines of these simple poems themselves, though they are unadorned with any punctuation.  The effect of Merwin’s poems having no punctuation is that each line becomes its own unit of meaning, each stanza its own group, despite the usual, delightful enjambment the reader expects from his poetry and indeed finds in this collection.  In “Lament for a Stone,” the speaker describes river stones as “smooth as water by rolling like water // along each other rocking as they were / rocking at his feet it is said that they // are proof against drowning and I saw you” (Merwin 35).  The reader feels the rhythm of that rocking in these lines, and the lines themselves impact the meaning of the text in a way that would not occur if they were encumbered with punctuation.

The Shadow of Sirius is written in three sections, with the poems in the last section most explicitly located at the end of summer and the change of seasons.  This adds to the wistful feeling of the poems in this section, as these poems contain the sense that change is coming and something good is fading away or has already faded away.    The speaker in the poem “White Note” declares that summer is over “and the leaves here and there begin / taking to themselves / the colors of sunlight,” a vivid image of summer turning to fall (Merwin 94).  To be so immersed in the details of the natural world and to feel deeply the vague sense of loss these poems evoke, the reader cannot help but consider the losses nature has suffered through human activity.  In this way, Merwin remains faithful to his familiar message of the horrors of environmental degradation.

Reading Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius is a delight, despite its sometimes sadly reflective tone.  The lulling rhythm of its lines invites the reader to share in the speaker’s clear joy in the beauty of nature.  Though the themes of these poems are oftentimes personal in nature, the reader never feels as though he or she is intruding by reading the poem.  The Shadow of Siriusblends its sense of privacy but invitation so masterfully that it is no wonder the collection won the Pulitzer Prize.  This book is useful as a way to teach creative writing students that free verse is more than just prose with line breaks.  It is useful as an example that poetry can put forth an imporant message without being pedantic.  But it is most useful in its own right, as something merely to be savored, to be breathed deeply in and then exhaled, like the lush, fragrant air of the summer.

About the Author

Author Photo

Author photo and bio from publisher’s website.

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 and was United States Poet Laureate in 2010. He graduated from Princeton University in 1948, where he studied with John Berryman and R.P.Blackmur. From 1949 to 1951 he worked as a tutor in France, Mallorca, and Portugal; for several years afterward he made the greater part of his living by translating from French, Spanish, Latin, and Portuguese. His first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus (1952) was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize.

Since then, Merwin has authored dozens of books of poetry and prose. His work embodies a bold commitment to experimentation and transformation rooted in the moral necessity of bearing witness, and is influenced by his profoundly environmentalist, pacifist, and anti–imperialist beliefs. He has won many awards, as well as fellowships from the Rockefeller and the Guggenheim Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. W.S. Merwinhas lived in Hawaii since 1976.

Merwin’s most recent books include The Moon Before Morning (2014), The Shadow of Sirius(2008), The Book of Fables (2007), and Present Company (2005).

Notable Links:

The Merwin Conservancy (Check out their Poem of the Week blog)

Merwin Studies

The Poetry Foundation Profile

Academy of American Poets Profile

Berryman by W. S. Merwin | The Writer’s Almanac

Modern American Poetry Profile & Poems

Paris Review – The Art of Poetry No. 38, W. S. Merwin

W. S. Merwin – The New Yorker

About the Reviewer

Michelle Villanueva is a reader for Kudzu House Quarterly, and she teaches English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in CALYX JournalWORK Literary Magazine, The Milo Review and dozens of other print and online publications.

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